Dr. Najde Al-Ali, a social anthropologist of Iraqi origin who teaches at Exeter University in the United Kingdom happened to be in Amman for a conference while our group was visiting. She offered some insight into the historical experience of Iraqi women, the subject of a book she is currently writing for Zed Books. The key insight I got from her talk is that feminism in Iraq has mostly been an idea used by an authoritarian regime for its own ends. During the oil boom of the 1970s, top down, state-sponsored "feminism" encouraged women's education and work in technical jobs. Then the long Iran-Iraq war, 1980-1988, which killed one million people, altered the gender balance in society to a female majority as well as promoting a militarized culture. Gulf War I and the sanctions that followed fell heavily on women as the regime propped itself up while leaving it to women to sustain families that had lost access to imported foodstuffs and medicines.
Top down, state-sponsored feminism made an unsustainable bargain to obtain women's labor in a society which sent many men to die in its wars; it brought women into public life but left family law, based on religious dictates, undisturbed. When insecurity under occupation pushed women out of employment, legally-based protections for women collapsed. This has nothing to do with "backwardness" or the particular dictates of Islam; it is a function of a false women's "liberation" that aimed to serve society's needs, not those of women themselves.
Al-Ali presented a time line of Iraqi women's status something like this:
- 1958: first nationalist constitution grants considerable freedom to women outside the home;
- 1978 constitution included some positive changes to family law, though nothing earthshaking;
- 1980-1988 the Iran-Iraq war saw resurgence of patriarchal traditions;
- 1991-2003: women bore the brunt of the sanctions regime, as the health and educational systems fell apart and secure employment declined;
- late 2003: the Iran-linked SCIRI party began agitating for full restoration of sharia and patriarchal control of women; U.S. proconsul Paul Bremer vetoed this;
- 2004: under the U.S.-installed Iyad Allawi government, the legal status of women remained as under the last Baath constitution;
- 2005 and onward: the new constitution is contradictory. On the one hand, women can pass on Iraqi citizenship to their children, a new right. However, its family law removes even the formal guarantees of individual autonomy that existed under Saddam, making every woman subject to the authority of religious law as interpreted by the recognized authorities/clergy of her community of origin. Since such interpretations are not uniform, this means a very uneven, arbitrary set of legally enforceable rules. Thirty-seven women's organizations in Iraq are working to get these provisions rewritten, but how successful they will be in current circumstances remains to be seen.
Most Iraqis would agree, according to Dr. Al-Ali that "we were afraid we'd be killed under Saddam ... but at least we could leave the back door open!" Only when security returns will Iraqi women be able to debate and define what rights they believe they should have under law.